JERRY LEWIS – Developing Muscular Co-Ordination through Non-Biological Parenting in “Rock-A-Bye-Baby”

Although “The Sad Sack” was a decent enough military farce, it did little to further Jerry’s solo career. If he entrusted himself to the mutable waves and swells of Hollywood fashion, Jerry could easily have ended as a washed-up artifact of post-war escapism. Realizing that only Jerry Lewis understood what a Jerry Lewis movie could and should be, he took over production of his own films, hiring Frank Tashlin, who had helmed the best of the Martin-Lewis vehicles, as director. Their first effort was “Rock-A-Bye-Baby,” and they began by putting Dean and Jerry into a blender and coming out with a character whose singing was nearly as credible as his pratfalls, and who was simultaneously believable as both a winner and a loser in love.

Tashlin was not simply interested in filming Jerry’s athletic stunts. His ambition was to create a more fully developed satiric portrait of the small town milieu in which the family was the precarious basis of the social order. He front-loaded the picture with an eye-popping cornucopia of physical comedy and sight gags that left the audience breathless. Then he laid out the series of misadventures that had brought his unfortunate protagonist to such a sorry state, and introduced the female element that would exploit his inability to mature beyond the romantic fantasies of childhood. But even as Tashlin added the multi-perspectives of supporting characters, he never lost sight of Jerry’s centrality within the broader picture, and maintained a balance between the dualities of the clown and the crooner.

One might expect that a Jerry Lewis movie with a plot that is founded on the proposition that the village idiot would assume responsibility and care for three babies left on his doorstep by the object of an unrequited romantic obsession from childhood would be rife with hilarious routines involving the incompentencies of the would-be father/mother. But “Rock-A-Bye-Baby” offers very little in this regard, preferring instead to view Jerry’s parenting as an adventure in sorting out his own social and biological shortcomings. His tending of the triplets eventually cures him of the self-destructive infantilism of his obsession with their mother and guides him to a gentle acceptance of a more suitable, although subversively incestuous, mate. The healing of the ruptured family is perversely the result of, if not a clear violation of sexual taboos, a transference of affection from one member to another member of a non-biological family unit.

When Jerry takes a course in mothering, cross-gender humor is conspicuously absent. In fact, in the second half of the movie, following the arrival of the triplets, Tashlin’s script is minimizes its comic potential to focus upon the function of the babies in leading to a resolution in the estrangements between the members of a family that Jerry has longed to be a part of all his life, but has always attempted to enter by the wrong door.

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